Unsettled

Yesterday, on &if, someone asked whether we were attracted to IF because of its status as “outsider art.”

I don’t really want to define outsider art, or get into the discussion over whether IF qualifies. But I responded that I felt I was attracted to IF because it’s unsettled.

And then I had to go and write a post about what, exactly, I mean by that.

The natural place to start this explanation, of course, is my time in film school. I spent a good chunk of my young adult life trying to get into the film industry. It didn’t happen, for a myriad of reasons, mostly outside of my control. But nowadays I realise that it probably wasn’t for me, at any rate; and in a lot of ways, if I regret something now, it’s that I didn’t pick the lane I’m on much sooner.

But to explain why, I have to go back to the idea of a film school in the first place. USC’s film school, the first in America, wasn’t founded until 1929; and higher education didn’t really catch on as the way to become a qualified filmmaker until the 1950s and 60s. The first generation of directors who were largely film school-educated came into prominence in the 1970s.

In the very early days of cinema, filmmaking had not been professionalised yet. Movie makers came largely from the ranks of photographers – Itself a then relatively new profession that didn’t have much in the way of an academic infrastructure built up around it. But filmmakers were also engineers, painters, carpenters, architects, designers, choreographers, theatre directors, actors, philosophers, mathematicians. Dziga Vertov studied at a conservatory and wrote poetry before he got involved in film; Luis Buñuel bounced around the University of Madrid, studying agronomy, engineering, and philosophy.

The first wave of professionalisation was not higher education, but apprenticeship within the studio system. Hitchcock came up through this system, starting out as a title card designer. You’d get a job doing something relatively menial (gaffer, clapboard operator), learn a technical trade (set lighter, camera operator), and then move on up to a creative position (director of photography, editor). If you were good at it, or lucky, or had the right connections (usually all three), you’d get to direct or produce films.

The second wave of professionalisation was the first trade schools that taught people how to make movies; and then, higher education focusing on film or communications. Each successive layer of professional education benefited, above all, the studios. It created a pipeline of talent that they could tap into, efficient and predictable, an infrastructure that would produce the rarefied labour they relied upon to make their product; it was a great improvement over the previous chaotic system of people struggling their way up the ranks. In the 1970s, the first generation of “film school brats” pretty much saved Hollywood from self-inflicted ruin.

But, this enormous boon for the Capital that controls industrial cinema was a huge loss of diversity and vibrancy to the medium. The current creative elite, in cinema, is largely – not entirely, but largely – made up of people with degrees; usually, in film or communications. Many of them went to a small handful of prestigious film schools.

Think about everything that college selects for: whiteness, gender normativity, affluence, able bodies, mental health. Obviously people of colour and queer people make it through college every day; but, largely, colleges are gatekeeping institutions for the dominant social forces. If you were to deliberately design an institution that would weed out marginalised, poor, disabled, or mentally ill people, you could do much worse than coming up with a university: An expensive process that all but precludes working for a living, which involves demanding social interaction and high levels of energy every day, and constantly submits people to judgement from entrenched authority figures with badly specified power.

And at the same time, this pipeline of educated labour excludes people from a background outside this world. The normalised ideal in a film crew – much like in many other workplaces – is that of a group of people who, to be a little hyperbolic, basically think the same way. More to the point, they broadly come from the same class: They’re affluent white people; in the movie industry, skewing heavily male for good measure. This is not an accident of the industry’s reliance on a heavily class- and race-biased system of higher education; this is a reality that both industry and academia are fully complicit with.

So if you ask me what attracts me to IF: Both games and literature have relatively underdeveloped professional education. IF, being the weird stepchild of the two, has none. There are no shady for-profit schools offering a two-year course in interactive fiction writing; there are no overblown, impossibly exclusive MFA programmes for people wanting to do well in the Twine scene.

I maintain that this is for the best, and to the point that I’m ambivalent about the presence of academia in the field. Would we be better off in a world where Porpentine had to prove, by getting some kind of degree, that she was qualified to work? Do we think that work like hers has room anywhere in a creative field dominated by industrial production of products that conform to the demands of Capital and are made by people who have been rubber-stamped by Capital as appropriate sources of labour?

This, too, is important to the community. Part of the reason I consider &if successful, and in this it is perhaps a microcosm of the community as a whole, is that we are having conversations nobody else is having. Among our regulars, I count myself (a film school dropout and far-left radical); two trained classicists; a music critic; a sex worker; several programmers of differing backgrounds; several non-programmers; a conservative Mormon; people based in at least four continents; people on the full spectrum from hobbyists dipping their toes in to people who make a living out of IF and related work. There’s a fecundity that happens in a truly diverse space like that.

This is not, mind, to erase or deny the reality of gatekeeping. Gatekeeping happens, I’m always profoundly saddened to see it, and I make it my business to stop it where I can (see: &if).

But, even against the structural realities that make it not quite so, IF still feels like a field where anyone can come in and do things that matter. It is vitally important that spaces like that exist, and I believe one of the great artistic struggles of this century is to find ways for people to be able to sustainably produce work and live off it without putting the field in a cowpen built by Capital.

Because this is the big, scary caveat: A bunch of people in the general space of altgames (into which I am going to unfashionably place IF) have achieved visibility and constant praise for their work; but not a lot of those people have achieved sustainability. If we are attracted by the creative promise of the field, we should be repelled by the insecurity. That, however, is a conversation for another time.

The status of writer – and even more so the status of “IF author” – is more or less entirely self-proclaimed. This is as it should be; you should not need someone’s permission to make things.